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Project by Online Graphic Design Grad Starts Conversation About Urban Renewal

To most people, abandoned buildings and neglected neighborhoods might not seem like an opportunity for an innovative graphic design project. For William Culpepper, they presented a chance to use his thesis project to inspire positive change in communities.

William Culpepper

Starr Hill: Charlottesville, Va.

While living in Arizona, William noted the run-down buildings in his area and considered what he could do to make an impact on this issue. It was not until the MFA Graphic Design grad, then an online student at Academy of Art University, moved to Charlottesville, Va. that his unique idea began to take shape.

The Starr Hill neighborhood lies between downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. William saw this neighborhood, one that city officials have been trying to revive for decades, as a link between the two areas that drive the economy of Charlottesville.

As he contemplated the decay of the once vital area, he had the idea that would soon become Grafik Intervention. He built the project into his thesis, advised by Graphic Design instructors at Academy of Art University, including Marc English and Lian Ng.

William began the project by researching the history of the area. Among the people he spoke with was Satyendra Huja, President of Community Planning Associates. Satyendra has been working to revitalize the Starr Hill area for the last 30 years. “Through our conversations, we discussed the problems of West Main Street, the potential solutions and the type of results that the revitalization efforts had during the late 1970s and early 1980s,” William wrote in his book describing his thesis project.

Work by William Culpepper
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Armed with information from Satyendra and others, William began a project with the aim of sparking conversation in the community. To do so, he focused on the history of the abandoned buildings. After creating a logo and identity for the Grafik Intervention brand, William created slides to be projected on a number of buildings in the area.

Each set of slides gave viewers an understanding of the history of the building. One slide told passersby, “The owners of the building anticipated a bright future.”

As people stopped to read and examine the projections, William asked them to fill out cards about the experience. He asked them three questions: How often do you walk/ride/drive past this building? What made you stop today? What did you learn about this building?

The project inspired a conversation in the community by encouraging residents to look at their surroundings, understand the history of the buildings and think about the potential of the neighborhood. “People don’t really notice what’s in their environment,” William told 79NM, the blog of the School of Graphic Design. “So I decided to take responsibility and bring awareness to the empty buildings.”

Work by William Culpepper
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Big Rapids, Mich.

With the success of his first Grafik Intervention, William wanted to use his thesis idea in his teaching as well. He moved to Big Rapids, Mich. for a position as Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Ferris State University. Drawing on his thesis as a plan for the course project, he asked his students to complete research and create projections similar to those in the Starr Hill project.

The project was a memorable one for the students, earning them local publicity in the city’s Pioneer Press as well as university papers. “I was very surprised and encouraged by the positive response I received when I talked with community members in Big Rapids,” William said.

Questionnaire Cards
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Being an online student at Academy of Art University aided William in taking his project to the next level. “The Academy has built such an extensive online environment. I’m constantly impressed by the amount of support given to online students—the tools, resources and interactivity are amazing,” he said. “I was able to finish my MFA without having to give up teaching, and moving wasn’t disruptive to my learning.”


As for the future, William continues to think about new ways he can use his ideas and graphic design background to promote social responsibility. “Something I learned in my design education through the Academy is that the thesis doesn’t end,” he said. “It continues to evolve, and I continue to work on it. I already have my eye on the rebirth of Detroit.”

Read more about William’s project on the School of Graphic Design’s blog.

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